This coming Sunday, July 17, we are beginning a new sermon series on the book of Ecclesiastes. This week on the website, we’ll be posting 5 introductory articles, one each day, explaining some of the background issues surrounding the book that there isn’t time to cover on a Sunday morning. The schedule of what’s coming up:
Monday: Bibliography (a working list of the resources I’ll be using in my study of the book)
Tuesday: Author & Date (Who wrote the book and when?)
Wednesday: Genre (What type of book is it?)
Thursday: Provenance & Destination (From where & to whom was the book written?)
Friday: Purpose & Theme (Why was the book written?)
The author of Ecclesiastes reveals his intended theme in his infamous declaration that forms the bookends of Ecclesiastes and is repeated throughout the book:
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” (Eccl. 1:2, HCSB)
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile.” (Eccl. 12:8, HCSB)
The Hebrew word translated as “futility” by the HCSB (and “futile” by the NET) has also been rendered as “vanity” (NASB, ESV, KJV, NKJV), “meaningless” (NIV, NLT), and “smoke” (MSG). Most of us who are acquainted with Ecclesiastes are probably most familiar with the translation of “vanity”, but more and more our understanding of this word has taken on the meaning of the NIV’s “meaningless”. We read the book as though the Teacher is declaring this life and everything in it to be meaningless. The only problem is that isn’t at all what the Teacher is trying to say. This word literally means “breath” or “vapor”, and it carries the connotation of weightlessness, transience, and a lack of power. In the Law, it describes false religions and false worship; in the Prophets, it is used in relation to idols; and in wisdom literature (including Ecclesiastes), it highlights temporality.
So in declaring everything to be futile, the Teacher is making two statements: 1) everything is temporary and will quickly pass away; and 2) none of it can bear the weight of the expectations we put on it, nor fulfill the needs we ask it to fill. So pleasure is futile because the good feeling quickly passes and leaves us feeling even emptier than before. Wisdom is futile because we can do all the right things and still receive a negative result. Work is futile because even if we manage to be successful, we’ll lose everything when we die anyway (which means possessions are futile as well). None of these things are inherently meaningless (pleasure and possessions serve as a distraction, work puts food on the table and a roof over your head, etc.), but they are all futile–they are all fleeting, temporary, and limited. Their meaning is contingent on Someone greater and cannot be separated from Him. They are good things, but they are not ultimate things. The problem is that we often ask them to be ultimate things, and the inevitable result is that we discover their futility. We search for ultimate meaning in things that cannot provide it. Thus, Sidney Greidanus argues that Ecclesiastes was written to a people who “had lost their theological moorings” (p. 12), abandoning a relationship with God to pursue lame substitutes for him.
We must also note that Ecclesiastes makes these statements about everything “under the sun” (Eccl. 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17-20, 22; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5). In ancient cosmology (and even in the way we continue to speak colloquially today), the gods/heavens were up and the earth was below. The book’s declaration that everything is futility is limited to all that is “under the sun”. He is writing from a horizontal, earthly perspective, as evidenced by the fact that death hangs over the entire book. Everything is futile because none of it can help us once we die. In canonical context, all the things we pursue (work, wisdom, pleasure, money, power) are really nothing more than false religions and false idols. We ascribe to them ultimate meaning, but they are unable to contribute anything beyond the grave (and most of the time not even that long).
Ecclesiastes is often seen as being skeptical or even agnostic (the author speaks generally of “God”, never specifically of “YHWH”) because of its pessimistic outlook. But the Teacher’s point is exactly the opposite. He doesn’t tear down (true) religion or faith; he tears down everything we substitute it with; he tears down our false idols so the true God can take his rightful place. As Michael Eaton suggests,
“The Preacher wishes to deliver us from a rosy-coloured, self-confident godless life, with its inevitable cynicism and bitterness, and from trusting in wisdom, pleasure, wealth, and human justice or integrity. He wishes to drive us to see that God is there, that he is good and generous, and that only such an outlook makes life coherent and fulfilling” (p. 55).
I’ll have a lot more to say about the purpose and theme of the book on Sunday, as we open the series by looking at the ideas of “futility” and “under the sun” from Ecclesiastes 1:1-3:
Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 93-96.
Barry C. Davis, “Ecclesiastes 12:1-8–Death, an Impetus for Life,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148, no. 591 (July 1991): 298–318.
Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 50-55.
Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes: Foundations for Expository Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 12.
Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 29-32.
Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, eds, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 129-130.